Behind the Laptop: MAXSpeed Ends This Era of United States Rotax
Where does Rotax racing in the USA go from here?
Rotax racing, as we know it, began here in the United States back in 2001. The company was involved in karting back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the Rotax FR125 Max engine that it really grew roots in North America. SSC Racing, which was based originally in the Seattle area before calling Southern California home, received the first Rotax Max engine in the summer of 2000. From there, the first year of the United States Rotax Max Challenge was established as was the inaugural US Rotax Grand Nationals, which was held at the famed X-Plex facility in Las Vegas. For you history buffs, that race was won by veteran karter Tim Lobaugh. Through a strong marketing effort, focused at the club and entry level customers, the Rotax program began to establish footholds across the United States. SSC Racing continued to be the importer of Rotax products until the end of 2010.
MAXSpeed Group was named as the United States Rotax Max Challenge operator on November 12, 2010, serving as the distributor for Rotax products and race promoter for the US Rotax Grand Nationals and Pan-American Challenge. The company was a combination of three businessmen – Canadians Michel Boisclair (SRA Karting) and Richard Boisclair, and American Garry Lobaugh (MRP Motorsport). The transfer of power over the Rotax brand was marred by lawsuits between the former and current entities.
The MAXSpeed Group moved forward and continued to present a strong product with the Rotax brand, and they promoted well-run and well-attended US Rotax Grand Nationals (Utah, Indiana, and North Carolina) and Pan American Challenge events. One of the key pieces in history came in 2013 when MAXSpeed hosted the Rotax Grand Finals at the NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was the first time that the Rotax world championship event was held on US soil, and the MAXSpeed Group hit it out of the park, re-establishing a new bar for race. Later, MAXSpeed Entertainment (MSE) was created following the purchase of Formula Kart Productions and the Florida Winter Tour in July 2014. Then in 2015, MSE established the US Open program to serve as a national championship for Rotax and shifterkart competition.
Of course, the numbers at the beginning in 2001 were low, as one class was only offered. The following year in 2002, three classes were offered before the RM1 (DD2) and Mini Max packages joined Senior, Masters, and Junior. Micro Max came into the mix in 2008 to help round out the Rotax ladder system. At the early years of MAXSpeed being at the helm, numbers continued to be strong across the nation. In recent years, however, the support for Rotax by racers, teams and shops began to fall off, heading to an all-time low at the end of 2016 and beginning of this season.
Now, MAXSpeed and BRP-Rotax have terminated their business relationship, handing the interim distribution over to SRA Karting in Canada. This has left Rotax in the United States in a state of flux for the first time since the USRMC was developed.
Two issues played major roles the dwindling numbers of Rotax racers in the United States:
1) Lack of respect to the local racers
When Rotax was at its highest, we would typically see at least 200 drivers at the US Rotax Grand Nationals. After years at the X-Plex in Las Vegas, the event traveled to Road America and Colorado, then back to Wisconsin, Oklahoma, New Castle, Utah, South Bend and North Carolina from 2006 to 2013. Numbers continued to remain strong until the program returned to Utah in 2014 when they dipped below that 200-mark for the first time in years. From that point on, the entry support continued falling with the events in South Carolina (2015) and Sonoma (2016).
Why the downfall? When the US Rotax program was at its highest, reaching over 200 drivers at the US Rotax Grand Nationals, it was a mixture of national talent and regional/local drivers. After MAXSpeed took over the program, much if not all the focus was spent on keeping the ‘traveling racers’ and race teams happy. It was top-down marketing, with all the time spent on promoting and servicing those racers at the five to six events promoted by the company, rather than continuing the strength of the local/regional programs that were built up when Rotax first began.
MAXSpeed’s primary focus appeared to have moved to high dollar customers and teams, leaving out the hundreds of racers they had at the local tracks and regional programs. This showed in the numbers at the Grand Nationals, and the number of racers across the country participating in USRMC programs. Being ignored, those racers looked at other options in the sport, or worse, left the sport all together.
2) Voodoo Magic
The backbone of the Rotax program when it launched was the concept of the engine becoming the high-speed ‘club’ motor. There was the ability to race the engine all year long at your local track without any rebuilds needed during the season. If an issue occurred, you could take the engine to a local ‘service center’ to have the engine repaired, and kept on par with the legal specifications sent out by the manufacturer. There weren’t ‘engine builders’, there were Service Centers. The concept was that all engines were kept stock and equal. And, if you wanted to go and test yourself against others throughout the country, you worked to qualify for the one-off Grand Nationals.
As the competition level grew, so did the cost to compete at the front of the field. Like in all forms of motorsport, racers go to extreme levels to find the very best products to put together the quickest race package possible. For Rotax, it was buying engine blocks, cylinders, heads, carburetors, electronics, etc. to put together the quickest and most powerful engine. Service Centers were replaced by engine builders who promoted their superior performance, not the equality of the stock engine. These hybrid packages would then be sold for reportedly astronomical high dollar figures, pricing out the regular karters. It was more evident in the Junior, Mini and Micro divisions, where every little bit of an advantage in the low HP divisions could mean a tenth or two. Add in the ‘turbo’ effect that was an issue a few years back, and many shied away from Rotax competition for their Cadet driver.
The introduction of the EVO engine was not a successful one. The EVO was designed to attack all the weak points in the engine, but several bugs existed from the beginning and the necessary conversion kit, along with multiple product updates for racers to be current, did not go over well in the US market.
Until the end of 2016, there was never any promotion about racing a Rotax ‘out of the box’. Similar to what we are seeing now with Briggs & Stratton at the local and regional level, the new generation of racers love the ‘plug and play’. They want to put the engine on the kart and go with no need for getting involved with the right ‘service center’ to ensure you have a fast engine, or making sure you find the right combination of engine block with cylinder and carburetor. Simple, easy, low maintenance and more enjoyment is the continued focus for the local/club level racers. They don’t want to watch monthly updates from the engine manufacturer regarding new parts required to compete at their Saturday afternoon club race.
Part of the problem was the development of the Rotax Service Centers, as I’ve stated. Originally, they were designed to keep engines up-to-date, implementing the ‘engine passport’ system, to keep a record of what has been done to each engine, and just who worked on it. That system became corrupt. At first, certain regions were flooded with too many official Service Centers at one time and then a number of long-time supporters were removed. The engine product put out by BRP is not the fault of MAXSpeed. I do credit them for attempting to overcome issues beyond their control, however, the damage has been done.
Where does Rotax racing in the United States go from here?
Currently, Michel Boisclair and SRA Karting Canada are directing the United States RMC program. Boisclair has a long history with the Rotax brand, as he was the first North American distributor of Rotax Max engine beginning in 1999. Rotax in Canada is also seeing a decline in numbers. Looking at the 2016 Canadian Karting Championships, Briggs competitors outnumbered those in Rotax categories by a count of 111-67.
BRP, in the statement sent out on March 31, is ‘investigating’ the specific needs for the US market. Currently, we find two other engine manufacturers – IAME and Vortex – looking to engage the current Rotax customers to race on their products with the latest engine trade-in program. Not surprisingly, some Rotax customers are happy to stay with what they have, as we see so many times the loyalty that does exist in motorsports. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see the engines trickle down to more club tracks and continue growing in Road Racing, where they can still get the 50+ hours without a rebuild, just out enjoying their time at the track.
The Challenge of the Americas wrapped up earlier this month with their winter Rotax program and the Can-Am Karting Challenge is committed to running the Senior and Junior Rotax divisions this year with two tickets to this year’s Rotax Grand Finals on the line. Add in the US Open / Grand Nationals event that is scheduled for June 22-25 at the New Jersey Motorsports Park, and those are the three major Rotax events in the United States for 2017.
Recent news of the Rok Cup Promotions taking over the naming rights to the Florida Winter Tour further cements the market for Rotax at the national / international level in North America to be all but gone.
Rotax is not going away in a blink of an eye, however. The brand still garners worldwide attention, especially with the Rotax Grand Finals event. I’ve personally attended the race three times previously, and there is nothing like it. The annual staging of the karts on the front straight is one of the most picturesque moments in karting every year. Watching some of the best racing talent go head-to-head in a true world championship is truly something to see first hand.
Looking at MAXSpeed during their tenure as the USRMC director, the 2013 Rotax Grand Finals is the true highlight. Putting on an event of that magnitude is truly a miracle, as they made it seem flawless to those outside of the inner circle. During our period as their official media partner, I was excited to see the outside-the-box thinking of Richard Boisclair when it came to the sport itself. He was not someone who grew up in or around the sport. Outside thinking can only help open the eyes of those still living in their own little box. At the Grand Nationals and the Florida Winter Tour events they promoted, it was about making each race look the part. Not just a couple banners here or there, but a true professional-looking atmosphere surrounding all the MAXSpeed events. Their efforts have forced other promoters to look at their product with different eyes, and take things to a new level.
There are some signs of life for Rotax at tracks / clubs that will still be promoting the classes for the 2017 season. Northern California, Colorado, and New York have long-time supporters who are still on board. The US Rotax Max Challenge, however, is entering its third chapter in the United States. There is no way to predict what will happen with the product line, as it all depends on what BRP-Rotax decides to do with it in the future. The question remains, however, if anyone is going to take the Rotax flag and carry it for the US market.